We interrupt our regular programming—the PC spin on the cause of the $4 billion budget shortfall—to bring you an important public service announcement from the Premier-In-Waiting, Mr Lukaszuk.
Mr Lukaszuk steps up to the microphone and says: Listen up you pesky union types, and this includes all you doctors who aren’t in a union but who cares, from now on all collective bargaining will go through me. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
OK he wasn’t quite that blunt, but that was the gist of it.
Last week Mr Lukaszuk announced that a newly created cabinet committee will analyse, scrutinize and negotiate every single collective bargaining agreement in the province. A lead negotiator will be appointed soon.
Mr Lukaszuk gave four reasons for this bizarre move. The Cabinet Bargaining Committee, chaired by Mr Lukaszuk of course, will: (1) provide a co-ordinated approach to offset changes in ministries and fluctuating conditions, (2) make the government’s costs more predictable, (3) make the government more prudent when it negotiates a settlement and (4) allow for “fairness” by “treating all public sector employees equally.”*
They say the devil is in the details, but in this case the devil is in the broad strokes because Mr Lukaszuk’s rationale makes absolutely no sense. Let’s break it down:
Co-ordination? Yes there’s a sense of dislocation (and sometimes relief) when a minister leaves a ministry, but surely the institutional knowledge in that ministry, starting with the deputy minister and percolating all the way down to the mail room clerk, doesn’t vapourize with the defunct Minister. Fluctuating conditions? I’m not sure what this refers to but if it’s the impact of a healthy or weak economy on pay scales, what’s the Committee going to do about it?
Predictability? Grafting the Cabinet Bargaining Committee onto the collective bargaining process does nothing to make the government’s costs more predictable. A better approach would be to follow the private sector example–plan for contract negotiations at least a year in advance, identify the contentious issues, forecast the anticipated monetary impact and develop a game plan. This is called a union strategy and it’s high time the government developed one.
Prudency? Frankly I have no idea what this means and would challenge the government to give us an example of an imprudent settlement.
Fairness and equality? Fairness means free from discrimination or bias—does this mean that all unions will be treated the same? Equality means being equal in quantity and amount—does this mean all increases will be the same? Really???
How will the Committee evaluate and compare non-monetary demands like the Alberta Medical Association’s demand for joint decision making and the Alberta Teachers Association’s demand for a cap on teaching hours at 1200/year?
OK maybe that was too hard. Let’s take an easier example. How will the Committee equalize monetary demands? Should all pay increases be the same, say 8.1%; that would be consistent with the 8.1% pay increase the MLAs gave themselves recently.** Or if 8.1% is too high, Mr Lukaszuk’s Committee could roll back the MLAs’ increase as a gesture of good faith (stop laughing!).
All this talk about co-ordination and prudency is PR puffery. While Mr Lukaszuk is extolling the value of the Cabinet Bargaining Committee vetting every single collective agreement his colleague Jeff Johnson, the Education Minister, is urging the teachers to settle their contract in the next 10 days. Either Mr Johnson is blithely unaware of Mr Lukaszuk’s edict that all settlements must run through the Committee or he doesn’t want to get bogged down in more red tape.
There is only one reason for Mr Lukaszuk’s Cabinet Bargaining Committee. The Premier is in trouble. She says the $4 billion budget deficit as a “spending” problem, not a “revenue” problem. Since she’s not about to restructure her revenue model the only way she can reduce the deficit is to make deep cuts in the public sector. And she doesn’t think her ministers are up to the task.
She’s right about Health Minister Horne. He’s botched the negotiations with the doctors so badly that the parties are barely on speaking terms. Ms Redford is peering into the deficit gloom and sees the United Nurses of Alberta and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees on the horizon. These are well organized unions with very capable leaders.
Ms Redford is cornered and needs the Deputy Premier to knock a few heads together. Mr Lukaszuk is in the catbird seat. He knows that if he delivers the unions on a silver platter the word “Deputy” might drop from his job description and if he doesn’t, it was all Ms Redford’s fault.
Either way, it’s going to be a brutal year for Albertans.
*Calgary Herald, Feb 23, 2013, A4
**MLAs doubled their taxpayer-paid annual RRSP contribution from $11,485 to $22,331